I was not Amish. Or
In 1977, when I retired from teaching American history at Malone
College in Canton, Ohio, I had only a detached curiosity about
my Amish roots. My family was distinctly Mennonite, not Amish!
I was not aware that my great grandparents had lived and died
in that persuasion. Nor did I know that my grandparents had made
the transition to the change-minded Amish Mennonites in that
Great Schism of the 1860s. I was later surprised to learn that
it was only in my early childhood years (1916) that my parents'
church had broken further from its Amish roots by joining with
the MC Mennonites and dropping "Amish" from its name.
But during those forty years of teaching, my father kept reminding
me of my Stoltzfus, Yoder, Hershberger, Troyer, and other forebears.
Especially my Stoltzfus ancestors! My father produced a genealogy
of the descendants of my mother's great-great grandfather, Peter
Schrock, who was a minister in what later became the Oak Grove
congregation of Wayne County, Ohio.1 But still, I hardly realized that
these forebears were Amish.
My father loved to tell me the story of his grandfather, Deacon
John Stoltzfus, who in 1872, at 65, had the temerity to move
from the rich farming country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,
to Knoxville, Tennessee, with its red soil and post-Civil War
disarray. He took six of his twelve children and their families
with him. Father told this story respectfully, but was critical
of what proved to be a financially unwise move.
I left the classroom in late May 1977. At the same time, almost
to the day, I received notice of the upcoming reunion of the
descendants of "Tennessee" John Stoltzfus, at the Millwood
Mennonite Church, near Gap, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I
had no choice; I had to attend --if for no other reason than
for my father's sake.
At that reunion I received encouragement to write the biography
of this Stoltzfus patriarch, my own great grandfather.2 Since he was something of a church leader,
this biography, when completed two years later, provided me with
a key-hole view of Amish church history in the nineteenth century.
But the keyhole was small; I needed a window, a larger one. So
since 1980 I have been spending much of my time enlarging that
Quickly I came to realize how Amish my roots really were. Just
as the apostle Paul was, by his biological and sociological roots,
"a Pharisee of the Pharisees," so I am an Amishman
of the Amish. No, I am not an Amishman at present, but neither
was Paul a traditional Pharisee when he declared himself to be
"a Pharisee of the Pharisees."
I prefer not to carry the analogy any further, for Paul was,
I think, much farther removed from his Pharisee roots than I
am from my Amish roots. Some of my Amish friends might disagree
with me on this point.
My "Amish credentials" are impressive! I am a descendant
of the famous widow Barbara Yoder, who migrated to America in
1742. My Stoltzfus roots are represented by Nicholas Stoltzfus,
who migrated to America in 1763. My mother's forebears, the Troyers
and the Hershbergers, have a similar history.
In my youth I had thought of those Old Order Amish boys and girls
who made up one-half of my schoolmates at Eight Square School,
near Goshen, Indiana, as belonging to a peculiar denomination.
I viewed them as extremely legalistic and traditional, quite
out of touch with the twentieth century. As for my parents, they
were not disposed to talk about the Amish flavor of their own
Nevertheless, I had found those Amish schoolmates to be good
playmates. I thought some of the girls were attractive, but assumed
that the gulf between us was too wide to allow for any extended
socializing. (But Mattie saw no barriers. One evening after dismissal
she stopped me in a corner outside of the school building and
gave me a precious pencil clip to signify her interest in me.)
In my later youth, as a member of a threshing crew, I learned
to know many Amish farmers as I traveled to the ends of the neighborhood
and beyond. Here I found them in their native habitat. Here they
were at home. I'm sure there were disagreements among them and
surely there was some ill will among them at times. And, yes,
shunning was practiced. But on threshing days there was only
camaraderie and jocular sparring. It was clearly understood that
such repartee was expected be a part of those daily ablutions
around the noonday washtub. In spite of my reluctance to use
their dialect, they took me into their circle. Those scenes have
never left me.
Nevertheless, it was only after I had retired from teaching and
had made serious inquiry into my roots that I came to the realization
that my Old Order Amish friends were also my spiritual cousins.
Coming to this understanding made my research more interesting,
and indeed, more exciting. This stance may dismay those historians
who insist that the narrator of historical events write his or
her account with detachment. I submit that no chronicler has
ever been able to arrive at the distinction of having written
New Treasures Unearthed
When I began on this journey in 1980, I did not anticipate the
wealth of new source material in Amish history, which would come
my way in the following two decades. "Tennessee" John's
remarkable cache of letters and church-related documents, preserved
in the attic of his great granddaughter, Lydia Mast, Atglen,
Pennsylvania, was the most remarkable find.3 As Amish history began to unfold further,
the minutes of those Amish ministers' meetings of 1862-1878 became
increasingly significant. Clearly they required further attention--and
translating. They had been available but little used.4 Then in 1997 Amos Hoover, Old Order
historian, and John Sharp, Director of the Archives of the Mennonite
Church, found an old letter written in 1838. It related to the
controversy within the Amish Church concerning the rebaptism
of Mennonites who wanted to join an Amish congregation.5
These gold nuggets are not all that my historical prospecting
brought to light. But they are the most significant. And I am
indebted to those who brought them to my attention.
I began with my family roots and soon became acquainted with
a number of my forebears. Four generations of them--Jacob, Samuel,
Jonathan, and Silvanus--were lifetime or one-time members of
what became the Oak Grove Amish congregation in Wayne County,
Ohio. Jacob moved there from Mifflin County, Pennsylvania in
1818. His great grandson, Silvanus, left Wayne County for Elkhart
County, Indiana in 1896, where he married Susanna Troyer. Tracing
those four generations of Yoders and noting their involvement
in the affairs of the Oak Grove congregation was a warm experience
I learned of the ministry of my mother's great--great grandfather
Peter Schrock, also of the Oak Grove congregations. Two generations
later there was the story of my maternal grandfather, Samuel
Troyer's struggle to be freed from the sense of guilt for past
sins. Samuel's wife Katie was the heroine of this story.6
Imperfect but Worthy Models
These my forebears of the nineteenth century and their associates
were conscientious Amish people who walked in the footsteps of
their ancestors, many of whom had suffered persecution in Europe.
In spite of their exceeding respect for tradition, which sometimes
seems to have been confused with respect for God's Word, and
in spite of their emphasis on obedience, which sometimes overshadowed
their claims to God's grace, they sought earnestly to follow
Christ. Although imperfect models, they are worthy of some emulation
by those of us who, at the close of the twentieth century, would
also follow Christ.
Most refreshing to my heart is the consistent Amish position
against reprisal and revenge. Incidents of recent years confirm
- There are the parents of the
Allen County, Indiana, baby that was killed by a stone thrown
at her when she was cradled in her mother's arms while riding
with her parents in a buggy.
- The farmers in Mifflin County,
Pennsylvania, whose barns were set on fire by an arsonist.
- The relatives and friends of
the Fredricksburg, Ohio, girl who was killed by a reckless motorist.
- The Nappanee, Indiana, bicyclers
who were knocked to the ground and robbed on paydays.
In all these cases no legal action
or reprisals were taken by the victims against the culprits.
In some instances the victims, or their communities, even attempted
to reach out redemptively to the offender. This is a striking
contrast to the quick recourse to the law of most present-day
victims and pretend-victims.
Pride and Humility
In contrast to the American norms for the promotion of self,
the Amish emphasis on humility is a breath of fresh air. In Amish
thought, pride is a cardinal sin and humility is essential to
salvation. Isn't it true that the recognition of one's sin and
the necessity of receiving God's grace require a humble and contrite
heart as a lifetime stance? They even speak of Niedrichkeit,
the recognition of one's "nothingness," as a virtue.
The virtue of humility is so fragile that for one to be so bold
as to claim it for himself is to lose it. Although Mennonites
of the twentieth century find this denigration of self distasteful,
even so, it would seem to stand many notches higher on the scale
of virtues compared to its opposite--arrogance and conceit.
The Amish leave no stone unturned in their effort to detect and
destroy the sin of pride, mostly by insisting on obedience to
the Ordnung. To do this they try to forbid personal conduct
or life stance, which appears to be an expression of pride or
arrogance. The Ordnung reflects this concern. The Amish
are, ready to enforce their regulations with that ultimate instrument
of congregational discipline, the Bann.
In their attempt to be less legalistic than the Amish, the MC
Mennonites have all but dropped their former "rules and
regulations." Not only have specific rules been dropped,
but also the concept which gave the rules acceptance. David Luthy,
Old Order Amish historian, has sharpened the distinction between
the discipline practiced by the Amish and that of the MC Mennonites.
He notes that "admonition," as contrasted to "discipline,"
is the key word for understanding the Amish Mennonite and Mennonite
pattern of "drifting." Conference "resolutions"
and "admonishment" lacked the teeth that the Old Order
"discipline" had. Today it constitutes the vast gulf
between the Old Order Amish and the Mennonites with whom the
Amish Mennonites united, 1916-1927.7
Some would maintain that Luthy has made the distinction between
the discipline of the Old Order Amish and the MC Mennonites too
sharp. However, it should be noted that after separation from
the Old Order Amish, the Amish Mennonites, in the course of a
generation and a half, dropped some rules and regulations through
attrition rather than by conscious deliberation. The practice
of shunning, as advocated and practiced by Menno Simons and Jacob
Amman fell into disuse gradually. There was never a formal decision
to discontinue this centuries-old instrument of church discipline.
In like manner, a relaxing of the regulations against the use
of musical instruments and the photographing of individuals came
only after the fact. Most of us MC Mennonites would not choose
to reinstate the practice of shunning, nor the regulations of
a century ago. But we would do well to note that changes in the
Old Order Amish Church have been more orderly than those in the
MC Mennonite Church, although admittedly, at the price of considerable
Assurance of Salvation
Then there is that theological and experiential issue about one's
personal assurance of salvation. The Amish say, "He that
endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matt. 24:13). Therefore
one cannot have assurance of salvation until the end of her or
his life, and then only after God has pronounced him or her faithful
at the judgment day.8
Here I must join with the critics. I suspect that my grandfather
Troyer need not have anguished for years over his past sins,
confessed and forsaken, had he had a proper understanding of
God's grace. On this point I must listen to those who have left
the Amish faith because of its stance against assurance.
I must also note that some of my long-deceased Amish friends--with
whom I have become acquainted only through the letters and other
documents which they left behind--have expressed, with some poignancy,
their own sense of God's love, forgiveness and presence in their
One of these 19th-century Amish friends, perhaps my closest,
is Deacon Christian Stoltzfus (1803-1883). This reluctant administrator
of Amish discipline, both in his congregation in Buffalo Valley,
Pennsylvania, and of the fun-loving sons of his second marriage,
was much given to introspection. He said to his deacon brother,
I often have to think of
it, especially at night when I lie sleepless in my bed . . .
. How are we poor mortals to do everything which the Great Prophet
teaches us in His Gospel? But yet I hope and believe that the
loving heavenly Father is moved to pity me, poor sinner, and
that he wants to forgive my past sins if I am to appear before
Him on that great Judgment Day. But through infinite grace and
mercy, and the price of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, I hope
to meet a merciful judge.9
The honesty, humility, and gracious
stance of Christian Stoltzfus is most refreshing to my heart.
Another of my Amish friends of yore is George Jutzi (ca, 1790-1845)
of Richville, Ohio. In his book-length, and poetry-formatted,
Ermahnungen (Exhortations), he tells the biblical
story of salvation. In page after page he builds up an enormous
case against sinful humankind. Then he points to the Savior as
God's answer to the cry of humankind for a deliverer. The build-up,
consisting of many scores of four-line stanzas, is overwhelming.
Humankind's sins, beginning with those of Adam and Eve, have
accumulated until they "heap up from here to God's throne."
All have "followed in Adam's footsteps." There is no
one "who is not flecked with sins . . . who might have the
power to blot out our guilt."
The crescendo continues. Even "angels' tears" will
not appease a righteous and just God. There are none so "bold
and wise in speaking" that they can persuade God to turn
away His wrath. But eventually God shows the "light of grace"
to his fallen creation. The King comes, who "will redeem
the people from the power of sin and death, tread on the serpent's
head, overcome his power, break Satan's lock and bolt, and on
that victory hill [Golgotha] free young and old."10
Robert Friedmann has characterized this marathon poem as largely
descriptive, portraying "the sturdy and concrete Biblical
faith [of the Amish] without much emotion" I must take issue
with Freidmann. George Jutzi's word pictures are, indeed, graphic
and charged with warm personal feelings.11
Of my nineteenth century friends, there remains Bishop David
A. Troyer (1827-1906), Grandfather Samuel Troyer's first cousin.
With considerable help from Joseph Stoll, well-known Amish author,
I have translated his memoirs.12
Much of his poetry, written in mid-life during his years of illness,
seems contrived and laboriously didactic. But his "Evening
Poem" rises above the others. He speaks to God in the cool
of the evening:
Oh God, you who have given us
The dark night for our gentle rest,
Surround us now with your might
Body and soul we commit to thee.
He closes the poem with the following
As we go to bed
May you, Lord, send your angels
That they may stand by our side.
Then we close our eyes.13
In another of Troyer's poems,
"Now We Commit the Body To Rest," he intends the reader
to imagine him speaking to the mourners from his coffin. Written
in his mid-life years of ill health, he comments on his own imagined
death. Here there is no unease or uncertainty about his eternal
destination. He is with the Lord. Further, he assures his mourners
with words that seem atypical of Amish beliefs, that upon their
own death, "this joy will also be yours." He concludes:
My soul has gone ahead,
Where the Lord will watch over it
Until the day of eternity
And of that unspeakable joy
Which no eye has yet seen.
So do not trouble yourselves over
much about it,
You who remain alive on the earth,
For this joy will also be yours.14
Finally, there are my living Amish friends. These include Ivan
Hershberger, who repairs my lawn mower and the Simon Schmucker
family, Goshen, Indiana. The Schrocks live on the homestead of
my wife's parents, and freely consent to our having family reunions
there. I want to note especially those with whom I have participated
in research projects. These associates include Joseph Stoll of
the Pathway Publishers, Aylmer, Ontario; the aged Minister Eli
Gingerich, who lives a few miles east of Middlebury, Indiana;
Vernon J. Miller, compiler and author of the Historical Album
of Charm, Ohio; Bennie C. Yoder, member of the Casselman River
Area Amish and Mennonite Historians, Springs, Pennsylvania; Abner
F. Beiler, Librarian of the Pequea Bruderschaft Library, Gordonville,
Pennsylvania; and the late Levi Stoltzfus of Leola, Pennsylvania,
genealogist and family historian. The list is incomplete, but
suggests the extent of my Amish associates. Without exception,
these men have been congenial co-researchers, giving and receiving
the results of our common researching, without concern for who
gets the credit for any particular discovery. This is not always
the case among writers.
Peter Stoll and David Luthy remain to be mentioned. Peter was
one of the leaders in the Amish settlement in Honduras in the
1970s. I never met him, but his son Joseph has given him identity
for me. I shall never forget his homespun proverb that "it's
better to trust and get taken once in a while than not to trust."15
My Amish connections have not led me to follow the path taken
by David Luthy, my closest Amish friend. Luthy was born, reared,
and educated in the Catholic faith. After college and several
years of seminary training he began to explore Anabaptist beliefs.
He concluded his search by joining an Old Order Amish congregation.
I respect him heartily for this, but do not find it in my heart
to follow him. For, as I have already indicated, I am in some
disagreement with Amish beliefs and practices. In spite of this,
Luthy and I have been companions in research in Amish church
history for the last fourteen years. May our friendship, in spite
of our differences, continue into eternity!
Paton Yoder, Goshen, Indiana, wrote this reflection at the invitation
of the editor
Silvanus Yoder, A Brief History . . . of the Descendants of
Peter Schrock (Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House,
Paton Yoder, Eine Wurzel: Tennessee John Stoltzfus (Lititz,
Pa.: Sutter House, 1979).
Paton Yoder, Tennessee John Stoltzfus: Amish Church-related
Documents and Family Letters (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite
Historical Society, 1987). Yoder was also editor of many of the
documents found in this attic cache.
Copies of the proceedings
of these conferences may be found in the Mennonite Historical
Library, Goshen, Indiana. A translation of these minutes, with
annotations and supporting documents, by Steven Estes and Paton
Yoder, has been announced by the Mennonite Historical Society.
translation of this letter of 1838, with annotations appears
in this issue. A more extensive article will appear in a forthcoming
issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review.
Yoder, Katie Hershberger Troyer Hostetler, 1852-1929 (Goshen,
Ind.: by the author, 1981).
Yoder, Tradition and Transition: Amish Mennonites and Old
Order Amish, 1800-1900 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1991),
the Amish position on "assurance," see Amish Bishop
David A. Troyer, "Wer aber beharret bis zum Ende dir wird
selig," in Herold der Wahrheit, Jan. 15, 1886, pp.
Christian Stoltzfus to Deacon John Stoltzfus, March 15, 1869,
in Tennessee John Stoltzfus. . . Documents, pp. 147-148.
excerpts are translations taken from Ermahnungen von George
Jutzi in Stark County, Ohio, an siene Hinterbliebenen, (Somerset
County, Pa.: Alexander Stutzman, 1853), pp. 89-100.
F[riedmann], "George Jutzi," Mennonite Encyclopedia,
vol. 3, p. 133.
grandchildren published his memoirs under the title, Hinterlassene
Schriften von David
A. Treyer [Troyer] (Elkhart, Ind.: Mennonite Publishing Co.,
1920). Pathway Publishers will publish this translation in the
13. Translated from Ibid.,
pp. 75, 76.
Translated from Ibid., p. 95.
Joseph Stoll, Sunshine and Shadow, Our Seven Years in Honduras
(Aylmer, Ont.: by the authors, 1996), p. 209.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 1998